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Legal victory for UNC on race-conscious admissions comes as Supreme Court weighs whether to take up the issue

A view of the steps of Wilson Library in September 2018 at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. (Jonathan Drake/Reuters)

A federal judge’s ruling this week that upholds race-conscious admissions at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was the latest in a string of recent legal defeats for opponents of affirmative action in higher education.

U.S. District Judge Loretta C. Biggs found, in a ruling released Monday, that UNC-Chapel Hill had not shown illegal bias against White and Asian American applicants while taking race into account for the selection of an undergraduate class. Biggs wrote that the competitive public university used a “highly individualized, holistic admissions program” that follows decades of legal precedents allowing the consideration of race as one of many factors.

Students for Fair Admissions, the group that alleged unlawful discrimination in UNC-Chapel Hill’s admissions process, had also lost in similar lawsuits against Harvard University in 2019 and the University of Texas at Austin in July.

But the group has long pinned its hopes on the Supreme Court. The high court has had significant turnover since its last ruling on the issue five years ago left the status quo in college admissions largely intact. How the court’s newly strengthened conservative majority will view perennially volatile questions about the role of race in higher education remains to be seen.

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Edward Blum, president of Students for Fair Admissions, which is based in Arlington, Va., said the group will appeal the UNC-Chapel Hill ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit and the Supreme Court. He also sought to minimize the significance of the recent defeats.

“It is not unusual for high-profile and difficult legal cases to be resolved at the Supreme Court rather than the lower courts,” Blum said Tuesday. “Students for Fair Admissions anticipated likely losses at the district court in all of the challenges to college admissions.”

Overall, the legal situation is fluid. In 2019, Harvard prevailed over the plaintiff after a trial that weighed allegations the university had discriminated against Asian Americans. In 2020, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit upheld Harvard’s victory. Students for Fair Admissions has petitioned the Supreme Court to overturn that decision and bar the consideration of race in admissions.

In June, the Supreme Court asked the Biden administration for its input before the justices decide whether to take up the Harvard case.

Ultimately, it is possible that the UNC-Chapel Hill case could be merged with the Harvard case. Both lawsuits were filed in 2014. If the Supreme Court chooses to consider them simultaneously, it would have detailed examples from trial records of race-conscious admissions within the context of two prestigious universities, one public and one private.

“We remain hopeful and optimistic that the Supreme Court will grant review of the Harvard case and concurrently the UNC case,” Blum said.

In her ruling, Biggs gave affirmation to the voices of students of color on a public flagship campus where questions about the historical legacy of slavery and the Jim Crow era continue to resonate.

“Race is so interwoven in every aspect of the lived experience of minority students,” Biggs wrote. “To ignore it, reduce its importance and measure it only by statistical models as [Students for Fair Admissions] has done, misses important context.”

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Supporters of race-conscious admissions say the Biggs ruling shows the weakness of the plaintiff’s arguments. Trials in Boston and in Winston-Salem, N.C., featured reams of statistics and analysis from Students for Fair Admissions but no live student witnesses in opposition to the admissions systems at each school.

“Their case is based on flawed expert testimony that is manipulating numbers,” said Genevieve Bonadies-Torres of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which was involved in both trials. The rulings against Students for Fair Admissions, she said, “really shed light on the thinness on which these claims rest and that it’s a political agenda they’re trying to advance.”

Bonadies-Torres said the rulings underscore the urgency of the quest for diversity in higher education. “The message is that colleges and our country still have a long way to go before our campuses are truly inclusive and recognizing the incredible talents of students of all backgrounds,” she said.

For UNC-Chapel Hill, the ruling was a vindication after years of scrutiny of its admission practices.

The state flagship campus has about 30,000 students, including 19,300 undergraduates. The university received more than 44,000 applicants for the fall 2020 freshman class and admitted about 24 percent. Federal data show 57 percent of its undergraduates identify as White, 12 percent as Asian American, 9 percent as Hispanic or Latino and 8 percent as Black or African American. Others identify as multiracial or international or are of unknown background.

“This decision makes clear the University’s holistic admissions approach is lawful,” Beth Keith, an associate vice chancellor at UNC-Chapel Hill, said in a statement. “We evaluate each student in a deliberate and thoughtful way, appreciating individual strengths, talents and contributions to a vibrant campus community where students from all backgrounds can excel and thrive.”

Bryan Pietsch and Robert Barnes contributed to this report.